Selecting cloth may be the hardest part of the bespoke (or made-to-measure) process. You pick the style of a suit every time you buy one off the rack, but you’re unlikely to have ever looked at a tiny square of cloth and tried to imagine what it would look like on you, head-to-toe.
What is it for?
A lot of the work should be done before you even visit a tailor. The right cloth is largely driven by questions of when and where you will wear the finished piece, so make sure you have considered questions in advance such as:
- How formal does it have to be?
- Will the suit or jacket be worn just for the office? For a special event? Or for a mix? What is appropriate in those settings in terms of material, colour and pattern?
- How heavy should it be?
- Will you wear it all year round, or just for particular times of the year? When you do, will you ever really be outside for long, or just in air conditioning?
- What else will it be worn with?
- Consider whether you are likely to wear the finished piece with a shirt and tie, or sweater and jeans. Or even both.
Once you have these ideas straight in your head, the challenge is communicating your desires to the tailor or salesperson, so they can guide you through the cloth options.
One easy way to aid communication is to wear something similar or bring in a picture of what you want. This may seem silly, but visual demonstration is a lot easier than verbal.
The tailor may instantly realise that you want a tweed with a harder, smooth finish, like a Saxony; rather than a heavy, woolly Harris tweed. But chances are you would have struggled to put that into words.
How cloth is made
Speaking of language, it’s worth being aware that there are four main stages in the making of cloth that affect how it looks and wears. The tailor may use points of each to explain the options.
We will go into more detail on all four in separate chapters of this guide, but for the moment they can be summarised as:
- Design. The obvious aspect – the colour and the pattern. There are shades and casts of everything, so it’s worth comparing colours and seeking advice on them
- Material. Whether the fibre is wool, linen, cotton or cashmere, but also how fine it is (the ‘Super’ numbers)
- Weaving. How that raw material is woven into cloth. This will be most obvious in the pattern (twill, herringbone etc) but also affects performance
- Finishing. Probably the most underrated area, this can turn woven cloth into something very smooth and silky, or rough and rustic
What are its properties?
Often, these four stages are the ones a tailor or salesperson will focus on. But arguably the important thing is the effects these have on the cloth.
And when you’re comparing a whole range of different navy jacketings, for example, it is these effects you need to consider.
Some of the most obvious are:
- Hardness. The suit you wear to work (a worsted wool) has a harder finish than the soft, woollen cashmere you might wear as a jacket. This hard finish makes the cloth sleeker and smoother.
- Crispness or dryness. Cloth that is crisper is sharp, creating a longer-lasting crease in a trouser. The surface also tends to feel drier. Linen often feels drier than a worsted wool used for suiting.
- Nap. The hairiness – the length of the visible fibres on the cloth. In practice closely related to the hardness/softness.
- Weight. An easy one to focus on. Most cloths will state their weight in grams and/or ounces. Remember that heavier cloths will tend to drape and wear better.
- Breathability. A cloth with a more open weave will tend to allow more air through, so it wears cooler.
- Wrinkle-resistance. A high-twist cloth tends to feel stiffer and won’t wrinkle as easily. Often recommended for travel.
If you go into a tailor with merely the idea that you want a sharp suit, you will likely first be asked some of the questions at top – as to when and where you will use it. So consider them in advance.
Then you may be presented with different options, with the explanation that one is softer, lighter or more breathable than another. It’s worth understanding the ‘effects’ listed above to anticipate these.
What do I do with it?
Once you have those options in front of you, what do you do? Is it like tasting a wine in a restaurant – are you expected just to nod and smile?
Try to do more than that. Here are some recommendations, gathered from my own experience and the tips of Savile Row’s top salesmen and tailors.
- Narrow down your choices fairly quickly, if you can. Try to get to a point where you have 4-5 options laid out alongside each other. Perhaps different shades, or slightly different patterns.
- Feel each suggested cloth between your fingers. Get a sense of how smooth, soft or crisp it is. Although you don’t wear cloth against your skin, you do feel it with your hands, and feel how it moves with your body.
- Make sure you consider which side of the cloth is intended to go on the outside. They are not always the same. Usually the reverse side will have the label on it showing the code and weight.
- Consider the different colours carefully. Take them to a window or outside to get a sense of them in natural light.
- Compare them to each other. Often you don’t realise the colour of a navy until you compare it to black. Perhaps also put them against different colours of shirt – white or blue – to see how they change.
- If there is a pattern, try to visualise it repeating outwards. This is often one of the hardest things to do, particularly with large designs. In general, subtle patterns like herringbones and Prince-of-Wales checks will become more subtle when worn head to toe. They just become texture. But big, bold patterns and colours can become stronger.
- Some tailors will have bolts of fabric available that you can get down and drape across yourself. This is worth doing. Even if you don’t want that particular one, it can be useful to get an idea of how a shade, or a pattern, will look full-length.
- Don’t feel you have to make a decision right away. Often the tailor can give you a small section of the cloth, to compare to things at home, or request one from the cloth merchant. This should always be big enough to see the full repeat of a pattern. There are often enough things to consider on a first trip to the tailor, without having to be final on cloth as well.
The cut of your suit is the most important thing to how it looks and feels. But I find I wear suits far more when I love the cloth; it’s more important than we’d like to admit. Spend time over it.
As with everywhere else on Permanent Style, we would encourage comments on these posts. It creates, over time, a body of knowledge and experience that I know readers return to time and again.
Let us know your experiences and your advice.